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September 25, 2017 | by  | in PGSA |
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Postgrad Informer

When I was in Timor-Leste for my research, to my immense surprise I was often looked upon with pity, because I could only speak one language. To my local guide, this was a source of amazement. He himself could speak five: Tetun, Portuguese, two local village languages, and English. Being bilingual is the minimum expected (generally people can speak the language of their local village, plus the ubiquitous Tetun). I think such a norm is to be aspired to. My short experiences learning Chinese (highly useful) and Ancient Greek (somewhat less so) have enhanced not only my linguistic skills, but my appreciation and understanding of other cultures. Learning a language increases knowledge of your own language’s grammar and generally helps improve brain function.

Which is why I am astonished by the continued opposition to compulsory Māori language classes in New Zealand schools. For a start, I think a second language in itself should be compulsory, for the reasons above. And for New Zealand, could there be anything more appropriate that one of our official languages, the language of the original settlers of our country? One of the objections has been that the time commitment to achieve fluency would be too large, but this is really beside the point. Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum: when you learn one, you learn about the history, the culture, and the spirituality of its speakers. With subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) undercurrents of division still remaining in New Zealand, Māori language provides a clear contact point for all New Zealanders to access a shared past, and encourage a shared future. Metrics of success should not be how fluent we are (though it would be awesome if everyone was), but how united we are.

And to all international postgrads who may feel their English is halting or weak, just remember: the fact you are speaking a second language at all beats most of us hands down.

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